For more than a century, her adherents and admirers have characterized her as being ahead of her time. Way ahead. Light-years ahead. Maybe. She was certainly of her time. Studied extensively with Tibetan monks. Tramped all over the Far East, Middle East, Europe, and what was still considered the New World, learning language after language. Fought with Garibaldi and the Italian Republicans against the ruling papists. Cofounded the Theosophy Society. Wrote the highly controversial The Secret Doctrine (1888), which fused the empirical to the occult. In a word, she lived. Born in Russia in 1831, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky -- H.P.B. to true believers -- rock-and-rolled through the mid-to-late Nineteenth Century, cutting a wide and deep spiritual swath, ultimately influencing the lives of notables such as Thomas Edison, William Butler Yeats, and Piet Mondrian, among many, many others. But was she a visionary guru or a rogue charlatan?
This Friday, on the occasion of the 107th anniversary of Blavatsky's death (1891, at the age of 59), Alex Warren, director of the local chapter of New Acropolis, the international cultural association, will lead an hourlong discussion about her life and works -- you can bet that he'll come to praise H.P.B., not to bury her. "Basically, what she tried to do was bring religion and spirituality and science together, as opposed to keeping them apart," explains New Acropolis spokesperson Mandy Bass. That didn't sit too well with the high muckamucks of science or religion at the time. "She upset a lot of people and got called a lot of bad names," Bass says with a laugh.
Most of Blavatsky's work was accomplished through the Theosophy Society, which she established in the United States in 1875 with writer and attorney Henry Steel Olcott and attorney William Quan Judge. The group worked toward a union of humankind, encouraged the study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies, and sciences, and emphasized the importance of unexplained natural phenomena, i.e., the occult. So too, through its monthly seminars, does New Acropolis. "We may explore ancient Egypt, we may do [Incan ruins] Machu Picchu, we may do Tibetan Buddhism -- something that has a spiritual quality to it but at the same time is based on fact and scientific information," notes Bass. "We help the public better understand other cultures in the hopes that it will help people to live together and treat each other in a more philosophical way." And lest anyone get the wrong impression, she adds, "We're definitely not a new-age organization."
A seminar about Madame Blavatsky will be held Friday, May 8, at 8:00 p.m. at New Acropolis, 320 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. The cost is $5. Call 461-5758.